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Typhoon death toll rises above 4,400 as hospitals struggle to treat victims

Storm-damaged hospitals in the Philippines struggled to treat patients as the United Nations on Thursday raised the death toll from the monster typhoon that ravaged the country to more than 4,400 — almost double the previous figure and far higher than an estimate given by the Filipino president.As water poured through smashed roofs, flooding corridors, Tacloban’s sick and injured lay on ramsha
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Storm-damaged hospitals in the Philippines struggled to treat patients as the United Nations on Thursday raised the death toll from the monster typhoon that ravaged the country to more than 4,400 — almost double the previous figure and far higher than an estimate given by the Filipino president.

As water poured through smashed roofs, flooding corridors, Tacloban’s sick and injured lay on ramshackle hospital beds awaiting treatment at the local hospital.

Alberto de Leon, hospital director, said he would immediately evacuate patients and condemn the building — but there is nowhere else to go.

As a result, the neo-natal ward has been moved to the hospital chapel. But de Leon said many of the babies born over the past week may not survive due to the lack of medicine and proper care and the risk of infection.

“It’s very distressing,” he said. “If this is not corrected immediately, there could be babies dying.”

In Tanauan, at a medical center staffed by volunteer American doctors, surgeons working with limited supplies performed life-saving operations — including an amputation while the patient lay on an old office desk and an emergency C-section birth.

But doctors warn they might have to start turning patients away.

“Very minimal supplies. I think we've got about a day left,” said Sara May, one of the doctors. “Then we shut down unless we have more supplies. We also don’t have any medicines right now.”

The U.N. also said that more than 900,000 people had been displaced by the storm, perhaps the most powerful ever to strike land, and that nearly 12 million people had been affected in some way.

It warned that fuel in the devastated city of Tacloban was expected to run out within days.

The U.N. put the death toll at 4,460, up from the government's 2,360 figure, said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She cited the Filipino government in reporting the figure.

President Benigno Aquino predicted earlier this week that the toll would be 2,000 to 2,500, and said that higher estimates had been influenced by “emotional drama.” A government civil defense official said early Friday that the official death toll had climbed closer to the U.N. figure, reaching 3,621. 

On the sixth day after Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, packing 195 mph wind and overwhelming surges of water, the USS George Washington arrived off the coast to begin moving aid to increasingly desperate survivors. The George Washington arrived with 5,000 sailors and two cruisers for support.

Most of the people hurt by the storm were still waiting for food and medicine, even as boxes of aid piled up at airports and military bases. Damaged roads and other logjams have kept the help from reaching the people who need it.

The mayor of Tacloban said workers had to choose whether to use trucks to distribute food or collect bodies, and the main convention center has become a temporary home for hundreds of people living in squalor.

The official in charge of humanitarian operations for the U.N. acknowledged frustration at the pace of aid distribution and said: “We have let people down.”

“I think we are all extremely distressed that ... we have not managed to reach everyone,” the official, Valerie Amos, told reporters in Manila, the Philippine capital.

She said that the immediate priority for humanitarian agencies over the next few days is to move and distribute high-energy biscuits and other food, tarpaulins, tents, clean drinking water and basic sanitation services.

At a medical center in Tanauan, the only one for miles, a cesarean birth on Thursday saved the life of mother and child. The baby was named for the doctor who delivered her.

But operations there may have to end soon because there were only a few hours’ worth of supplies left. 

“We expect to see a massive response. We expect to see millions of gallons of water, and food, medical supplies, personnel,” said Chris Wharton, a veteran aid water. “There’s an absence of that here. And these people are screaming out for help.”

Tacloban has been the center of world attention on the disaster, but Chris Clarke, the head of the humanitarian organization World Vision of New Zealand, expressed fear that “we have a number of different Taclobans around and we will discover that in the next few days.”

“Our concern is as much for the other islands, for the simple reason that we have not heard a world in the last seven days,” he told Reuters. “So we do not know what the situation is beyond Tacloban.”

Aquino, already under pressure because of the logistical problems that have slowed the distribution of aid, now faces the task of containing rising anger and deteriorating security.

Eight people were crushed to death when looters raided rice stockpiles in a government warehouse in the town of Alangalang, causing a wall to collapse, local authorities told Reuters.

The precarious security also worries humanitarian workers.

“The Tacloban team is facing enormous constraints because we cannot move around freely due to the security situation,” said Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Program, which is coordinating logistics for the aid and recovery effort.

Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez, said authorities lacked the necessary manpower and vehicles to both deliver supplies and to clear bodies off the streets.

“It's scary,” Romualdez told Reuters. “There is a request from a community to come and collect bodies, they say it's five or 10. When we get there, it's 40.”

He said the options were bleak in his city: “The choice is to use the same truck either to distribute food or collect bodies.”

The USS George Washington was carrying purifying machines that can make about 100,000 of gallons of drinking water a day. Its presence significantly boosts the U.S. aid already in the region. Since U.S. Marines arrived Sunday, they have brought about 100,000 pounds of supplies into the area.

The main task of the carrier and its support vessels will be to provide aircraft to move aid around the devastated region.

“One of the best capabilities the Strike Group brings is our 21 helicopters,” Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery said in a statement. “These helicopters represent a good deal of lift to move emergency supplies around.”

Late Wednesday, the Navy also activated the hospital ship USNS Mercy to be ready to support the disaster relief effort. If ordered to deploy, Mercy would get underway in the next several days and could arrive in the Philippines in December.

In Tacloban’s Astrodome convention center, families cooked meals amid the stench of garbage and urine, Reuters reported. Debris was strewn along rows of seats rising from dark pools of stagnant water. "We went into the Astrodome and asked who is in charge and just got blank stares," said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, which is setting up camps for the displaced.

Outside Tacloban, officials began burying about 300 bodies in a mass grave on Thursday. A larger grave will be dug for 1,000, city administrator Tecson John Lim told Reuters.

Elsewhere, Britain announced it was sending its carrier, HMS Illustrious, to the region while Internet video call service, Skype, offered a credit voucher for free calls for users trying to reach family and friends affected by the typhoon.

NBC News’ Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Lou Dubois, Becky Bratu, F. Brinley Bruton, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, and Reuters contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson reported from London.